01 February 2015

Electoral reform, anyone?

So who wants true representation after all the cheers are jeers are done?
[Pic courtesy sarynippf.wordpress.com]
The existing electoral system is seen as a serious problem and one which encourages corruption and violence.  This was observed by President Maithripala Sirisena in his manifesto.  He also observed that it is an issue that successive governments failed to address.  He pledged to abolish the existing system.  The replacement would be a mix of the first-past-the-post system and the proportional representation system.  Through this, he argued, every electorate would have a representative over and above the elimination of corruption and violence (see page 15 of Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto).  

In the 100-days program designed to operationalize key elements of the manifesto, the following were pledged: “On January 28 An all party committee will be set up to put forward proposals to replace the current Preference Vote system and replace it with an Mixed Electoral System that ensures representation of individual Members for Parliamentary Constituencies, with mechanisms for proportionality.  On Monday March 2 new elections laws will be prepared in accordance with the proposals put forward by the all party committeeOn Tuesday March 17 Amendments to change the system of elections will be placed before Parliament and passed as swiftly as possible.”

Even the most ardent supporters of this Government would concede that the 100 Days’ Program is extremely ambitious.  On the other hand very few, including the most ardent critics of the Government, would trash every element of the manifesto and this program. Even fewer would defend the existing electoral system.  As such, no one would object if it took this government more than 100 days to put in place a different system that effectively eliminates violence and corruption while making for more wholesome representation.  Thus, a few days’ delay is eminently forgivable not least of all because this is a system that the people have had to live with for almost 26 years. 

Thus is it possible to offer a generous reading of the silence and inaction of the Government on this process which by the President’s own admission is all-important and certainly a cornerstone of institutional reform.  However, given the ‘Robin Hood Budget’ that is total antithetical to the general thrust of the United National Party’s thinking on the economy, one must wonder if everyone is thinking more about election than about electoral reform.

A change in the system would certainly put at risk the parliamentary seat of almost every MP.  The President’s manifesto speaks of a General Election sometime after April 2015.  That’s just three months away.  The Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform appointed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and headed by Dinesh Gunawardena deliberated for years before coming up with a proposal which of course was then left to gather dust.  It is hard to imagine that a new lot, even if more efficient than the committee headed by Gunawardena, would get cracking and give us a relevant amendment in six weeks. 

As things stand, the Government could say ‘we promised elections and we will hold them with or without electoral reform’.  However, that would mean the continuity of the same ‘corrupt and violent system’ rubbished by the President in his manifesto and the election of, yes, ‘the corrupt and violent’.  It would be far more sensible to take the time to amend the act and finish the delimitation exercise that must necessarily follow and then hold elections.  This parliament can sit through until April 2016, after all.  Why saddle the people for 5-6 years more with yet another parliament made of members elected through a flawed process? 

In any event, this mixed-system supposedly based on the ‘German Model’ (as proposed by the Gunawardena-led committee) does not include a key element of the template, the election of candidates by the respective membership of the particular party in each electorate (as opposed to being ‘selected’ by party hierarchies).  If democratization is the desire, then there cannot be shortcuts. 

The Government can and should take the time and trouble.  It is unlikely that the people will revolt if there’s a delay as long as it is evident that there is clear direction and commitment.